Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Cundill Prize: Jardine's Going Dutch

A couple of years ago zillionaire Peter Cundill endowed a $75,000 international prize for "a book determined to have had (or likely to have) a profound literary, social and academic impact in the area of history."

Cundill, who himself won a prize for being "the greatest mutual fund manager of all time" (one hopes this means his customers can afford to endow prizes too), is a McGill alumni, and he asked the university to manage the prize for him.

That may have been ill-advised. One has the impression the university cares little and knows less about the management and promotion of a major literary prize -- compare the Cundill's impact to that of the Giller, which has one third the value (Correction later: two thirds) but has brilliant and dedicated backers.

So the announcement yesterday was a bit of a sleeper. The principal comment about it in the Globe & Mail yesterday was to question why the announcement was precisely timed to clash with the Siminovich arts prize, also being given in Montreal yesterday.

All of last year's nominees seemed like rather specialized studies largely unknown to the wider world of books, literature, and history. Of this year's, the best known was probably David Hackett Fisher's Champlain's Dream -- okay, it's the one I'd heard of, read actually. The winner announced yesterday was Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland's Glory, by British academic and critic Lisa Jardine -- which does indeed sound interesting. The Guardian Online, which covers British historical writing very extensively, had a short, enthusiastic review last February. It does not seem to be aware of the Cundill Prize, however.

It's still a new prize. Let's hope it finds its niche.
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